MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
In the end, man shapes the world, but the world gets the first crack at us. We’re not much more than a puddle before we’re two years old, and then more years to develop so we can survive on our own. Until then we take in more impressions than we give.
A tennis racket lurks in my earliest memories like a sick relative who had come to live with us. When I look at my baby pictures, there it is, resting in my crib in the place of a rattle or chew toy. I’ve talked to some players who say they know exactly the moment when their lives took the hard turn into professional tennis. It’s when they first left home to live full time in a tennis academy or when they first put a coach on payroll or when they first took prize money and officially dropped amateur status.
I had no sensation of milestones and the power to value a moment was never granted to me. My parents had the plan for my life from the moment my mother tested positive with me. Looking back now, I’d say the hard turn for me was when I left school after the eighth grade to play tennis full time and study some with a travelling tutor.
At the time it didn’t feel like a hard turn at all. I’d been told for several years that I’d be leaving school after the eighth grade so it had the reassurance of a promise kept. It was no different from waking up on any other day.
In the average day then, I’d spend seven hours on the court in our backyard in Radnor, Pennsylvania, with my dad blasting tennis balls at me from a machine. The rest of the day we’d talk tennis strategy, watch game film and train with weights.
In the winter we’d leave behind the Main Line suburbs and go rent a place in Florida with a tennis court so we could do the same year-round. Dad was a retired hedge fund manager who made enough millions to retire and focus on my game. Before that, he was on the 1984 US Olympic swimming team. No medals. He was accustomed to winning at everything but no medals in 1984.
By the time I was fourteen, I was good enough to beat the crap out of a decent college player so every few weeks we’d travel to a college where nobody knew me but that Dad had scouted out.
Once we drove down to the courts at the University of Pennsylvania. Dad said, “Get ready to fight, Anton.” We’re Greek. Dad loved being Greek. Ancient warrior-athletes.
For the tenth time, he told me how to approach the court, taunt the players on the college team, bait them into a match, bait them into putting money on the line. He said to me on this trip as he did on every trip, “A friendly game will ruin you. Play with adversity, with animosity. No friendly games.”
I realized this also meant no friends, at least not anywhere near tennis. Tennis is about only hate and suffering.
What Dad saw in me that he didn’t see in my brother Panos was that I could handle the hate. I could suffer. I could take the hate, give some back then take some more. With my brother, the fight would fall out of him. After a while, he’d flip Dad the bird and walk off the court. When Dad saw his absolute mental dominance over my brother was slipping, his efforts turned abusive and physical. I was on my brother’s side but I’m a people pleaser on some level and I wanted a different result and knew how to get it. I stayed on the court.
I took the punishment and by twelve I had used it to become an elite junior player. By fourteen, I was on the Penn campus to humiliate a Division I college player.
Late February is early in the tennis season. It was warm on a Sunday, and the first warm days make you notice for the first time in months that the branches are naked. I would look at the trees and try to imagine them with their leaves back on. Dad knew the team did informal hitting at 2pm and would be on the outdoor courts. I carried my biggest and most ridiculous-looking tennis bag and wore a pristine, white tennis outfit.
Dad said, “Don’t be a little cocky. Be massively cocky. Humble and confident seems real. You need to blow so hard they don’t believe a word you’re saying. And you need to piss them off. Make them crave a match to take you down.”
We parked far from the courts. Dad put five one-hundred-dollar bills in my pocket, then we split up. He walked to a place where he could watch the play without being seen, partly to watch the match and partly to be there to save me if a fight broke out. Dad was 6'4". His swimming weight was two hundred pounds, but at this time he was two-forty and mostly muscle. He loved asserting his bigness. He had black hair, olive skin and looked old-country Greek, tough and dangerous.
I saw a couple college kids hitting on the courts and four others sitting on a bench nearby in sweat clothes with racket bags. They looked like nice guys. I would have preferred to say hi, talk with them, hear what school and a normal life can be like, laugh about something. But Dad had taught me that this kind of average life was wasteful, slothful, damaging to a life of excellence. These boys were a breed to be pitied, observed only, like species in a zoo. Do not touch the glass, do not feed the animals.
Anyway, I had a job to do here. Dad had given me a few opening lines.
There were eight guys, all dressed in similar sweat clothes. Some were hitting, most were lounging on courtside benches like actors backstage after the play. I sat down as loud as I could on the bench next to them and said, “Hi, kids.”
They looked at me and smiled. Later I grew to be 6'3" and strong but then I was 5'10" and a rail with the flat, invisible muscles that active, early teens have. They didn’t say anything.
The grass lawns around the courts were thin and wilted, just starting to come back to life. A squirrel back on his haunches looked up at us from his nut which he held with both arms like a mixing bowl of brownie batter. Remnants of leaves from the fall, rotted to small pieces by the long winter, blew in wisps at the bases of trees and in small piles and soon would return to dust.
I pointed at one of the guys hitting balls on the court. “What a joke that guy is.”
They stopped talking with each other and looked at me.
I said, “I must be in the wrong place. Is this U Penn? I thought this was U Penn.”
“It’s U Penn,” one of them said.
“Well, who the hell are you guys? Where’s the tennis team?” I said.
They looked at each other. “We’re the tennis team.”
I did my best to look shocked, shocked. “Bullshit.” I pointed to the court again. “You can’t tell me that guy plays on a tennis team. Maybe an elementary school team.”
One of them said, “He plays number two singles.”
They found me insulting but also funny. Another of them laughed and said, “Nice tennis whites. Beat it, you little punk.”
I said, “If this is the quality of tennis at U Penn, then you can beat this,” and I stroked the handle of my tennis racket. That was improvised and I felt good about it. “Obviously I can’t get a decent match around here. Where’s Nadal when you need him. Andy Murray.”
One said, “I think there’s a middle school down the street. Go look for a match there.”
I said, “Middle school. That’s funny. Listen, if you don’t want to play me just for the instructional benefit to you, then play me for money.”
“How much money?”
I said, “Five hundred.” I pulled out the five bills from my pocket. This is the hard part. You can sound as ridiculous as you like, but money makes it real.
They were stunned. Nobody took the bet yet. I said, “Is this U Penn or U Pussy?” Dad scripted this stuff and he thought this last line was a gem. It worked. There had already been too much shit-talking and ego involved for it not to work.
The guys on the court had walked over by then to listen. “Who wants to play the kid?”
“I’ll play him,” said the number two singles player who had been hitting.
“Where’s your five hundred bucks?” I said.
Together they had two-fifty so we all waited while one kid ran to the ATM. The courts were a small oasis in Penn’s urban campus and a deli with an ATM was only a thousand feet away. I started hitting rallies with the number two singles player whose name was Jim. I said, “You’re okay, Jim. You look a little better from out here on the court than you did from the bench. You have a heavy ball.”
It was a clear day, sunny, no breeze. It was about fifty degrees out which is great tennis weather once you get moving. A commercial jet flew overhead, low enough that the sound echoed across the sky so you couldn’t sense where the noise was from.
“You’re damn right, squirt,” he said.
I wasn’t hitting my best stuff yet. I’d just get loose for a while before we played the match.
My hand-eye coordination has always been great. Great baseball hitters can write a number on a baseball with Magic Marker and when it comes at them at ninety miles per hour they can read the number. I’ve never tried that but I bet I can do it. Things move to me slower and I get there faster. Take that gift and work it out on a tennis court for seven hours a day and you get me. When the match started I knew I’d shift my game to the next gear and put a beating on Jim that he’d be dying to tell his friends about in a few years every time he’d see me on national television.
I just wished I didn’t need to be such a jerk about it. I didn’t know it then but I resented Dad for making me do this with people. I wasn’t able to name it as resentment, but that’s what it was. Dad never let anyone come to like me. I was trapped in his boot camp, developing an edge that no other fourteen-year-old could match.
There is no question it gave me toughness, a knowledge that no opponent across the net could fathom my training, but it was all built on hate.
We had rallied for ten minutes when the kid returned with the money. We put all the cash in an empty tennis ball can. They made jokes about having their drinking money for the night.
A guy about fifty years old in sweat clothes had taken a seat in the bleachers. I thought he was probably the coach. I didn’t see Dad but I knew he was there. I knew he was smiling like a hunter with a doe in his crosshairs.
Jim graciously let me serve first without spinning for it.
I got to my spot on the baseline and said, “These are good.”
“No practice serves?” said Jim.
Jim shrugged. It was his last relaxed gesture.
At fourteen, I could already serve a hundred miles per hour. More impressive than the speed was that my service form was perfect. It was beautiful, and I could place the ball anywhere I wanted. Anyone watching knew that with a few years and a few inches I’d be serving one-forty.
I uncorked an ace up the middle. It landed an inch inside the T. Jim didn’t move. His knees flinched to the middle but his feet never moved.
I looked to the bench. It was a Susan Boyle moment. Shock and awe. There was no apparent correlation between the performance and the package. Other than the team, the coach and my hidden father, there was no one around to see my quiet victory. The coach was already walking down from the bleachers like Simon Cowell ready to offer me a recording deal except this guy was no billionaire and I had no interest in a college scholarship. I knew I’d never go to college. I didn’t even go to the ninth grade for Christ’s sake.
If poor Jim had harbored any hope of playing pro tennis, it died that afternoon. He realized there was another class of player out there and he couldn’t handle the fourteen-year-old version of it.
Jim had a steady game with few errors but his ball had no pop. He couldn’t push anyone around. He would just hang around and make his opponent beat him but his ball set up exactly the way I liked it. I got to balls early, stepped into my shot and ripped my swing as hard as I could. When I was older I’d hit harder, but that day was the hardest I’d ever hit in a match to that point.
I beat Jim 6-0, 6-1. I gave him a game in the second set because I’m not as ruthless as Dad and the goodness I felt from doing it meant more than the criticism I would get for it on the ride home.
They were all so amazed by the severity of the beating that they forgot to feel hustled. They handed me the can of cash and gave me some pats on the back. They were sure they’d watch me win matches at the US Open in a few years.
The coach walked over to talk with me. I glanced up and saw Dad sitting in the bleachers. He’d come out of hiding and looked relaxed. He didn’t care about the money, but he did need to make sure I didn’t get hurt.
The coach smiled at me and said, “What’s your name, son?”
“How old are you Anton?”
“Where do you play?”
“Mostly my backyard. Some satellite tournaments.” I knew he was about to praise me and I was excited to hear it. Dad never praised me.
The coach looked around and saw Dad and knew exactly. Then the coach surprised me. “I don’t expect to see you around here again. Ever. I don’t like hustlers. Get going now.”
I picked up my massive tennis bag and started for the bleachers.
Then the coach said, “Anton,” and he walked over to me, still out of earshot of Dad. He put a hand on my shoulder and looked nice again. “Balance.”
He said, “Don’t think about what I’m saying all at once now. But every once in a while, when you have a decision to make, think about balance.”
“Good luck,” he said.
Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Brunt